NEW YORK – The literary journal Monkey Business unveils its seventh annual issue this month, with a launch tour in Boston and New York, bringing innovative writing from Japan to a U.S. publishing landscape that has comparatively little space for translated literature.
Founded in 2011 by editors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, the magazine got its start as the English-language counterpart to Shibata’s Japanese journal of the same name. The international version has made headway abroad with contributing works from luminaries — such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Hideo Furukawa — published in translation alongside avant-garde authors who write in English.
Goossen, a university professor in Toronto and a translator of Japanese literature including novels by Murakami, said that fiction from Japan can offer “a different way of looking at the world.”
“That freshness that comes from looking at the world through a new lens — it can be scary, it can be funny, it can be revolting. But there’s an intensity (to the experience),” he said.
The latest issue of Monkey Business includes work by frequent contributors Toh EnJoe and Mieko Kawakami, as well as newly translated writings of early 20th century authors Soseki Natsume and Kafu Nagai, spanning a range of styles from quiet realism to the ludic realms of imaginative dreamscapes.
“I think Japanese literature these days is in very good shape,” Shibata said at the journal’s May 3 launch at the Asia Society in New York.
“Some authors are realists and very good at depicting the difficulty of living in contemporary Japanese society. Some are fantasists creating very surrealistic and absurd spaces, which has always been a strong element in traditional Japanese literature.”
Novelist Matthew Sharpe, appearing at the New York event in conversation with fellow contributor Hiromi Ito, noted “more comfort with irresolution” in the magazine compared with U.S. literary journals.
He cited Japanese writing as an influence in his own work.
“I feel my brain being reconfigured every time I read Monkey Business,” Sharpe said. “The Japanese sense of story is very different from the American or Western sense of story and it always opens up possibilities for me.”
Shibata — who has translated into Japanese many U.S. authors, including Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster and Kelly Link — named his original Japanese quarterly in 2008 taking inspiration from the 1956 Chuck Berry song “Too Much Monkey Business.”
During its three-year run, the magazine published much of the writing that later appeared in translation in the early issues of the international Monkey Business.
In 2013, the discontinued Japanese journal made a comeback under the truncated title Monkey and has since continued to publish new Japanese fiction, poetry and visual art along with Shibata’s translations of short fiction from English.
The English-language Monkey Business has built up a respectable following with its annual issues available in e-book formats and in a print run of 3,500 copies, published by Brooklyn-based partner A Public Space and with funding from the Nippon Foundation.
For Goossen, who co-edits the journal and translates a sizable portion of its stories, the project extends and builds upon his earlier work anthologizing Japanese fiction for Oxford University Press.
The 1997 volume, reissued in 2010 and widely studied in literature classrooms, focuses mainly on kindai bungaku (modern literature), with selections dating back to author Ogai Mori (1862-1922), whereas Monkey Business shifts the emphasis largely but not exclusively to gendai bungaku (contemporary writing).
The seventh issue of the journal features Goossen’s translations of stories by Rampo Edogawa and Taki Monma as well as the concluding installments of two longer works he had been translating serially since the journal’s debut — “People from My Neighborhood” by Hiromi Kawakami and “The Forbidden Diary” by Sachiko Kishimoto.
“Translating is the opposite of theoretical, objective literary studies,” Goossen said. “There, you try to create a distance and a technical awareness, (but) in translation, you try to get as close as you can. Your awareness is more of an emotional awareness, a kind of sympathy with the text and with the characters.”
Among established heavyweights such as Jay Rubin and Michael Emmerich, emerging translator and current doctoral student David Boyd also contributed four translations for the new issue, including an offbeat 1930 story by Shinichi Makino in which the narrator’s three alter egos are seen as distinct entities embarking on an adventure.
“I can’t imagine a story like this getting published anywhere else,” Boyd said in an email. “It’s a really odd story, but the editors at Monkey Business are fond of stories that complicate the idea of what translation is, or can be. So we ran with it.”
The journal’s labor-intensive editing process involves Shibata and Goossen reviewing every draft against the original Japanese, checking accuracy and weighing aspects of style and voice, while managing editor Meg Taylor shepherds the English text into its final form with an eye toward readability and impact.
Though Monkey Business has become an educational resource in its own right, with professors introducing it as part of their syllabi in the United States and elsewhere, Goossen says the magazine favors a spirit of play and irreverence in literary work rather than pedagogical goals of any kind.
“As soon as you start using the word ‘mission,’ then things become very serious,” Goossen said. “You lose something. I think Shibata’s taken the lead in this, but I appreciate the fact that even the title of the journal, Monkey Business, is a funny name for a literary journal.”
While helping to “loosen up the field” of world literature, Goossen views the journal’s role as “breaking free of the bounds of both American literature and Japanese literature by placing them together, by creating a kind of new hybrid space.”
As with any literary endeavor, the commercial foothold is shaky and longevity is not guaranteed. However, Goossen sees that the magazine has “achieved a certain critical mass” over its seven volumes featuring major and emerging writers from both the Japanese and English-language literary worlds, contributing to the enrichment of both.
“Monkey Business has made an impact and that’s what we want,” he said.